California Typewriter

February 19th, 2018 8:18 PM
by
Filed under Musings;
3 comments.

This weekend, I watched California Typewriter, a 2016 documentary about the professional and hobbyist communities surrounding typewriters. A narrative thread weaves through the titular California Typewriter, a family-owned shop in Berkeley, California — but the film's scope encompasses many other typewriter enthusiasts, including Tom Hanks, who's collected over 250 typewriters and who has lent his name to the typewriter-inspired iOS app Hanx Writer.

Typewriters were an essential step in the evolutionary history of personal computers, establishing such standards as the QWERTY keyboard. As a retrocomputing enthusiast, I appreciated the veneration these collectors feel for these classic machines. Offering a dedicated environment in which to focus on one's writing, free from distraction, notifications, or multitasking, is something typewriters and the Apple II have in common.

But I must disagree with a few qualities of the typewriter that were touted as strengths compared to personal computers. I didn't take notes during my viewing, so I'll paraphrase Tom Hanks who said that a personal, typed letter is more likely to survive the ravages of time. He cited an example of a thank-you note that playwright Noel Coward sent in the 1940s and which is now framed and preserved. Hanks pointed out that it's easy to delete an email, and if Coward had been able to send something via that medium, it would've been unlikely to have survived to present day.

But the best way to preserve something isn't to put it in one medium over another — it's to put it in as many hands as possible. Coward's letter is unique and singular; should anything happen to it, there are no copies or means by which to reproduce it. By contrast, something that is digital in origin or which is scanned into a digital format will almost always exist somewhere. Observe the history of Hewlett-Packard, meticulously recorded in hardcopy only and then lost in a fire this past October. Those documents were as irreplaceable as Coward's letter; had they been digitized, they likely would've lasted as long as that letter, too.

The movie also featured musician John Mayer's multiple complaints against electronic documents. First, that they showed no record of how something was created; apparently he's never heard of version control and incremental backups. Second, while he acknowledged that digital files will last forever, he likened it to a trash pile: yes, the files exist, but no one ever goes through them or sees them again.

His statement is likely based on personal experience and is likely true for most individuals: I still have every email I sent in college but haven't looked at them in twenty years. But when it comes to famous individuals or archaelogical artifacts — as both are the case with Ted Nelson — such "trash piles" hold at least as much historical value as a playwright's thank-you note.

I appreciate typewriters and those who admire them, and the California Typewriter documentary drove home their kinship with retrocomputing enthusiasts. Both typewriters and personal computers such as the Apple II have unique strengths that needn't come at each other's weaknesses.

As a bonus, I learned that, just as floppy drives and ImageWriters can be played as musical instruments, so too can typewriters! Witness the Boston Typewriter Orchestra:

Recovering the code of Prince of Persia

March 29th, 2012 10:18 PM
by
Filed under Game trail, History, Mainstream coverage, People;
3 comments.

Jordan Mechner, rockstar programmer responsible for Prince of Persia and Karateka and keynote speaker of next week's PAX East convention, published a comprehensive journal of the making of Prince of Persia. In the book and on Mechner's Web site are notes, sketches, concept art, demo videos, and more — a wealth of information he preserved from decades ago.

Yet for all that time, there was one vital piece of data he was missing: the original source code. Whether it had been overwritten, lent or donated, mistakenly or purposely trashed, or simply lost remained unknown to Mechner, despite his best efforts.

This week, that long-lost treasure fell in his lap when his father mailed him a box of assorted unidentified floppies. Contained therein was Prince of Persia in its rawest form.

It never occurred to me that Mechner didn't already have PoP's source code. Given that PoP has appeared on platforms as recent as the Xbox 360, I wonder what version or fork they were basing that port on. It makes even more recent independent ports all the more impressive.

Source Code

Jake Gyllenhaal followed his role as Mechner's Prince of Persia
with the lead in
Source Code... coincidence?!

Mechner's next task is to verify the integrity of the floppies and migrate the data off them. New hardware like the FC5025 and Kyroflux are miracle workers in our ability to access vintage media via a modern operating system, but the fact remains that the floppy disk is a magnetic medium whose charge is dying. I started (but did not finish) my own floppy migration two years ago. It's easy to dismiss it as a low-priority project compared to ongoing and more demanding tasks, but it will be all too soon that I'll have put it off too long.

Once the code is recovered, I wonder what Mechner will do with it? It's still copyrighted material, so will he continue to keep it a secret — or will he publish it under Creative Commons, allowing a variety of variations and ports?

All this reminds me: David X. Cohen, co-creator of the television show Futurama, reported almost five years ago that he too had programmed an Apple II game that needed rescuing from floppies. I wonder what ever came of that?

UPDATE (Mar 30): Jason Scott tells me, "You'll be delighted to know I am leading this expedition."

(Hat tip to Sean Fahey)